BAGHDAD, IRAQ — AS the United Nations trade embargo against Iraq enters its fourth year, the country's economy is slowly grinding to a halt.
``This is as bad as the bombing; it is a slow death,'' laments a once-comfortable woman in Baghdad, who is now unemployed.
Food and medicine, despite being exempt from the embargo, are in dangerously short supply, Iraqi doctors say. Industry and agriculture are limping along with broken or jerry-rigged machinery desperately in need of raw materials and spare parts - tractors need tires and farmers need pesticides.
``Lack of spare parts cripples all industry: health, agriculture, or transport,'' says a medical doctor, who like almost all Iraqis requested anonymity.
To plead Iraq's cause and review the sanctions, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz met with Security Council members in New York in late March. The impact of sanctions, which were imposed after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, has been exacerbated by the country's heavy dependence on oil revenues and food imports before the Gulf war.
Three years ago, Iraq had a modern economy built largely on oil sales, which accounted for 90 percent of its hard currency revenues. The Baath government did not permit dissent, but provided its 18 million people with national health care, school meals, overseas training, housing, and electricity.
After the war, Iraq astonished many observers with its aggressive reconstruction campaign. Within months of the cease-fire, the government had restored electricity and 50 percent of water supplies. It rebuilt bridges and roads; repaired damaged hospitals; reopened schools; and started a nationwide food-rationing program.
But many state-run programs were shelved as the embargo began to bite. And imports such as medicine could not be replaced. ``Our doctors and modern hospitals cannot function without medicines and those, Iraq cannot supply,'' says Deputy Health Minister Showki Marcus. He notes that ``although the UN embargo does not apply to the purchase of medicines, foreign drug companies are unwilling or forbidden by their individual governments to sell to Iraq, even where we paid in advance.''
Dr. Marcus dismisses present emergency medical aid. ``It amounts to barely 5 percent of our needs,'' he says. In the past, Iraq imported $500 million annually in pharmaceuticals.
Food is also scarce in part because of a prewar dependence on imports. During the 1980s, the country used its oil revenues to buy food imports at the expense of developing its agricultural sector. By 1990, Baghdad was the largest buyer of United States rice.
Cattle, sheep, and poultry farming suffered from similar policies.
Today Baghdad is revising its agricultural policy - by necessity. Farmers, for example, are offered bonuses to expand arable land and grow cash crops.
Iraqi officials blame UN
At the same time, however, Iraqi officials charge that the UN has sabotaged food programs by preventing farmers from spraying crops by plane and blocking the import of animal vaccines.
Last winter's abundant wheat crop in the Mosul region brought temporary relief. ``It may stave off famine - this year,'' says a householder, echoing the widespread belief that only lifting the embargo can save the country.
A 1993 UNICEF report, which the UN funded but has since disclaimed because it faults the direct link drawn between health statistics and sanctions in Iraq, found that hunger is growing and disease increasing. The unpublished report cites multifold increases in low-weight births as an index of the crisis.
Government officials admit that the rations they distribute at prewar prices ``meet only 70 percent of a family's needs.'' The other 30 percent must be bought on the open market.
``Adults often go hungry to give their share to children,'' according to the report's author, Eric Hoskins, a Canadian medical doctor. ``Securing adequate quantities of food has now become the main preoccupation of Iraqi women.''
In January, the Ministry of Health published a report stating that 390,000 Iraqi civilians had died as a result of the embargo, most of them children.
Prices have skyrocketed. An egg that cost the equivalent of 5 cents in 1989 now costs $15; a kilo of sugar for 50 cents five years ago is now $150.
Some Iraqis have kept hunger at bay by selling off jewelry and family valuables, sending their children to work, or working two jobs themselves. Smuggling is rampant and beggars are a common site in the capital.
As people struggle to feed their children, the Baathist government may be gaining more control. ``People faced with famine will work with the government to improve their chances of economic security,'' a university professor in Baghdad comments.